An old postage stamp from Monglia showing a money scratching its head and a space probe

© ConradFries

The people of Mongolia will soon welcome in the year of the rooster. At the same time, the year of the monkey will draw to a close.

And it will leave behind one of the coldest winters so far this century.

In the Mongolian astrology system, every year – running from around February to January – is represented by one of 12 animals.

People born in the year of the monkey are thought to be clever and playful.

But there is an ancient saying in Mongolia: when the monkey shakes its tail, it will bring on a dzud.

What is a dzud?

In Mongolia, a calf wearing a blanket stands in snow next to a ger as snow falls around it

© Mongolian Red Cross Society

Once again, the saying has come true. A dzud is a weather pattern unique to Mongolia.

Temperatures during winter – the end of the year, or the monkey’s tail in the legend – can fall as low as -40 degrees Celsius.

This is especially difficult because over a quarter of Mongolians are herders. Animals are people’s livelihoods, food and an important part of their culture.

But in dzud conditions, livestock cannot reach grass buried under ice and snow. Since a summer drought can be part of some dzuds, hay harvests may be too meagre to cover animals’ winter needs.

They become weak and can die from the extreme cold and starvation.

A way of life may end

A man and two women wearing traditional clothes from Mongolia stand in front of their snow-covered ger

© Mongolian Red Cross Society

The current dzud is a particularly cruel blow since there was one just last year. It affected around 225,000 people and killed over one million animals.

In the past, there were usually at least a couple of easier years in between.

But with climate change, dzuds seem to be happening more often: there have been 12 in 23 years. In one of the worst dzuds in 2010, a quarter of Mongolia’s livestock died.

Up to 30 per cent of people in Mongolia live below the national poverty line. Families live in traditional tents called gers and earn almost all of their living from their herds.

When a family loses its herd, they often have little option but to move to the outskirts of an industrial city and look for work. This has happened to hundreds of thousands of people over the last 30 years.

A way of life that has lasted for thousands of years may come to an end for affected families and, maybe eventually, for everyone.

From barometers to cash – how we’re helping

A man stands on a snow-covered plain in Mongolia holding the reins to his horse

© Benjamin Suomela

Turning this around is all about preparation.

In November, the Red Cross’ new project in Mongolia started helping herder families survive dzuds and improve their lives.

Our integrated project helps on several fronts.

Working closely with groups of herders in the community, we will help them learn how to predict bad weather, including giving groups barometers.

They can then take action, such as making sure their animals have enough food or moving some of them indoors.

The Red Cross will also work with the Mongolian Institute of Meteorology.

When we find out that a dzud or other weather emergency is likely, we will increase support to herder families.

Emergency supplies for families and hay to feed animals will be stored in locations where dzuds are expected. People can then use them as soon as conditions begin to get worse.

We’ll help herder groups to share the knowledge they have built up about how to cope in good times and in bad.

In the past, many families lost their herds because they couldn’t pay back high-interest loans they had taken from money lenders. Now, we will also help people get secure, low-cost loans if needed.

Finally, the Red Cross will provide cash grants to people when conditions get really bad.

Research from previous dzuds shows that cash helps people buy what they need when they need it most. This includes food, fuel, medicine and warm clothes.

This will build on our support during last year’s dzud, when cash support helped 3,500 herder families in 17 provinces to keep going.